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Dispute over groundwater programs in Suffolk

An agreement on a county groundwater protection program

An agreement on a county groundwater protection program is announced June 4, 2014 at Blydenburg Park in Smithtown. With County Executive Steve Bellone, center, are David Calone, chairman of the county planning commission, left, and Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The fate of a $30 million deal to settle a lawsuit over funding of Suffolk's drinking water program appeared in jeopardy Monday night because of a scheduled county legislature vote Tuesday to kill two other long-delayed programs to buy land to protect groundwater.

The controversy arose because the legislature was scheduled Tuesday to take up a resolution to ax $79 million in what is popularly known as "pipeline debt" -- funding appropriated for capital projects that was never spent.

The resolution includes cutting Multi-Faceted Land Preservation and Environmental Legacy programs, totaling $30 million, to buy land for groundwater protection. Both programs were put on hold in 2010 by then-County Executive Steve Levy and have remained in limbo under County Executive Steve Bellone.

Environmentalists and Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) met for nearly an hour in Hauppauge late Monday but came to no agreement.

"We have explained our predicament, asked for some understanding and they are mulling it over," said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. He said environmentalists have sent more than 500 emails to county lawmakers already and will be out in force at Tuesday's meeting.

"We understand their concerns, but we haven't made a decision yet," said Gregory, adding that the measure may be tabled for further review.

The settlement deal, which needs approval in a voter referendum next month, would provide environmentalists with new bonding of $29.4 million -- $20 million for land purchases and $9.4 million for sewers and other environmental projects.

The settlement also would permit the county to continue borrowing for the next three years from the $140 million sewer fund to help offset property tax increases. That money is to be repaid from 2018 to 2029.

"Any way you slice it, you're stealing $30 million from the capital program at the same time you are promising $30 million in a settlement, before people even have a chance to vote on it," said Robert DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, an environmental nonprofit.

Amper said the loss is even worse: "You're taking $30 million, you're giving us $20 million for open space. It's the $10 million loss."

But Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said the proposed settlement, reached last June, "makes so much sense I can't imagine Suffolk County voters wanting to oppose it. It creates money for clean water, open space and allows us to hold the line on taxes while preserving the integrity of the drinking water program."

The deal would end a lawsuit brought by environmentalists last March, which sought to get the county to return $33 million diverted from the sewer fund to hold down taxes. Environmentalists had also begun a petition drive for a referendum to dissolve a program started in 2011 to give grants for new sewer construction and force the county to return money to the sewer fund with 9 percent interest. An earlier lawsuit against Levy's raid on the sewer fund is pending in an appellate division.

Officials warned that should environmentalists revive their lawsuit and petition drive, it would only result in replenishing the already overfunded sewer fund and dismantle programs to fund new sewers.

But Amper said it will be a major setback for the Bellone administration if they cannot continue to borrow from the sewer fund.

"They are jeopardizing a settlement already made and acting exactly opposite to what they claim -- that water quality is their top priority," Amper said.

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